The latest football club to be wholly and mutually owned by supporters, York City, will totter into the weak spring sunshine next month facing more obstacles to their fledgling survival than even the apparently lost causes which have preceded them.
AFC Wimbledon, the prototype new club formed in reaction to the Milton Keynes move sanctioned for Wimbledon FC, at least found a ground to share, at Kingstonian, when they began their football journey from the distant outposts of the Combined Counties League. Lincoln City, steered by their supporter-chairman Rob Bradley, managed to emerge stronger after he reluctantly took them into administration last year. Chesterfield supporters found they could not afford to pay off the club's debts and service its losses after they saved the Spireites from likely extinction in 2001, and have ceded day-to-day control to local businessmen, but at least they could do that, and have a historic ground, Saltergate, whose future they can consider.
York, stubbornly supported lower-division survivors, have emerged from a traumatic 14 months in the club's history, with around £700,000 in debts, a weighty wage bill and, most crucially and outrageously for the supporters, no ground. Squeezed into a dense residential portion of a proud city, Bootham Crescent, an atmospheric football home, could have been sold to finance a move elsewhere, had the board chosen to. Instead, led by the chairman Douglas Craig, the directors transferred the ground into a holding company, Bootham Crescent Holdings, to bypass a longstanding Football Association rule designed to protect clubs' tenure of grounds. They then agreed to sell it to a housebuilder, Persimmon Homes, for a price believed to be around £3.5m. Some 94 per cent of that will go not to the club but to Craig and his fellow directors, Colin Webb, John Quickfall and the former 1970s playing hero Barry Swallow, as majority shareholders of BCH. The FA, to everybody's disappointment but nobody's surprise, has neither said nor done anything meaningful or effectual about its own rule being avoided.
Outraged, the fans, who formed a Supporters' Trust shortly after the news of the sale broke in January last year, then saw the club sold for £1 to a motor-racing impresario, John Batchelor. His ideas, to "rebrand" the club into York City Soccer Club and combine it with his British Touring Car team, complete with chequered flags round Bootham Crescent, on the club badge and even the arm of the kit, crashed as the club skidded into administration last December. It then emerged that, as part of the original deal, Persimmon had paid £400,000 to the "York Sporting Club" but the contract was with Batchelor alone for sponsorship of the British Touring Car team, and only £30,000 to £40,000 went to the club. Batchelor found himself the object of further fury when it emerged he had moved out of his rented house and bought a house in a pricey part of Cheshire, which he put on the market a short time later for a bountiful profit.
But this week Steve Beck, a member of the Supporters' Trust board, who have all worked remorselessly to save their club, said he hoped they could now move beyond those ugly episodes and towards a healthy future. He said: "We need to save the club. We want to meet all the parties: BCH, who, after all, are still the club's landlords, Persimmon and the council, and we will talk to anybody offering help or ideas to plot a way forward."
Two separate parties considered buying the club from the administrator but both, the insurance broker Brooks Mileson and John Heynes, another former insurance man, foundered on the fact that the club has no ground. Debts, yes; losses, plenty. Assets? None. Well, just one, a house for young players which the Trust must now buy. Keith Agar, who has been working with Mileson, summed up the deal: "Only a fool or a fan would buy it." In the absence of rich fools or philanthropists, the fans have indeed stepped in.
Agar has been working on a plan for a £30m new stadium development on greenbelt land on the edge of York, which would be paid for by fringing it with a conference centre, hotel and casino. He made it clear this week that although he and Mileson are football people, who have been involved at other clubs including Scarborough, they are looking to make money out of the deal. "It's business," he said. Heynes considered buying out Craig and BCH but withdrew and is now offering his services as a facilitator.
While the businessmen looked at the property deals, it was left to the fans to look after the football club. Last month the Supporters' Trust parted with £92,000 in hard fund-raised cash, almost wiping out its reserves, to keep the club going for three weeks. When that ran out, the administrator said last Saturday's home match could be the last York would ever play unless a further £60,000 was stumped up. At the game, against Bury – a neat coincidence, because their fans were pioneers, masters of the bucket collection – over £18,000 was raised. A further £19,000 came in internet donations and over £2,000 was contributed by fans of AFC Wimbledon and, remarkably, Sunderland. The target is close to being raised already and the Trust this week finally signed an agreement with the administrator, David Willis, to take over the club on 15 March.
Whereas Batchelor bought it overdraft-free for £1 less than a year ago, in view of the club's debts the Trust will agree to pay the administrator around £160,000. This is roughly what the Inland Revenue is understood to be owed, but will include the administrator's own fees which are likely to be hefty. Other, unsecured creditors, according to football's familiar depressing routine, will receive nothing.
The Trust's immediate problem is short-term cash to survive beyond a few weeks. They must reach an agreement with the Professional Footballers' Association on deferring the payment of players' wages – they are understood to be looking for 25 to 30 per cent to be deferred – so that the club can make it through to the end of the season. Fourteen players' contracts expire then so the new club board will be able to review their costs. This week the Trust wrote to Batchelor asking for £100,000, which they want to cover a shortfall caused by Batchelor having sold 2003-04 season tickets at half price last autumn because he said he had a major sponsorship deal in place.
The Trust must also satisfy the rules of Football League membership, which require clubs to have at least 10 years' security of tenure at a ground, something York emphatically lack; at present they have until June this year – four months – before Craig can boot them out of Bootham Crescent.
The League, though, is not in the business of disqualifying its own clubs and it is likely that an accommodation will be sought, and that Craig will grant more time. This, though, highlights the urgency with which the Trust must address the club's most yawning problem: the ground.
Beck said discussions had taken place with BCH about the club's future and generally the fans, for all the lingering outrage, hope that Craig and his fellow directors will make good on their original promise to direct up to £1m of the Bootham Crescent sale back to the club. Craig suggested then that they could move to the city's Huntington Stadium, which is owned by the local council and currently occupied by the rugby league club, the York Knights.
Not yet exactly a vote-winner with the fans, Huntington presents several advantages over the grand scheme proposed by Agar. For one, it actually exists. York have available to them around £2m in grants for stadium improvement from the Football Foundation, which Craig never claimed in his time as chairman of the club. With that, money from BCH if it comes, goodwill from the council and, the Trust will hope, perhaps the involvement of one or two wealthy individuals, Huntington Stadium looks at least a practical possibility as a new home for York City.
The road to supporter-owned clubs has been pockmarked with trauma and insolvency, emerging generally not out of creative initiative but as a last resort when clubs have been threatened with extinction and nobody but the fans has been prepared to save them. At York, exceptional work by the Trust has produced, for now, short-term survival, and the chance of a future for a defiant lower-division club. "This is not the beginning of the end," Beck said, "it's the end of the beginning. I know somebody else said that once, but it's true."